In 2023, Lancaster completed a comprehensive plan. In 2024, it will implement it.
In 2023, Lancaster convened a Home Rule Study Commission. In 2024, its members will draft a charter to put to city voters in November.
The theme of previously laid plans coming to fruition was a recurring motif at the Ware Center Thursday evening as Mayor Danene Sorace delivered her 2024 State of the City address. The mayor depicted an administration that is making strides on the environment, fiscal sustainability, public safety, health and housing.
First elected in 2017, Sorace is beginning the second half of her second term. “We live in a fantastic community,” she said, and leading it is “the hardest and best job I have literally ever had.”
She began with Lancaster’s new comprehensive plan, which was adopted last fall. The city is moving briskly on one of its main components, the mayor said: A new vision for the Conestoga River Corridor.
The city is finalizing an agreement with Partners for Environmental Stewardship, the mayor said. It will lead a large coalition of environmental nonprofits and donor organizations to create an environmental center on Sunnyside Peninsula, anchoring a nature preserve of more than 50 acres.
Sorace spoke passionately about the city’s efforts to eliminate lead paint and end the risk of children suffering the permanent effects of lead poisoning. Its grant-funded lead abatement team remediated 98 homes in 2023 and is on track to complete 200, all south of King Street.
In 2023, for the first time, Lancaster was able to receive notification of all cases of children with elevated blood lead levels so it can follow up by testing their homes and remediating if necessary. The agreements with Penn State Lancaster General Health and the state Department of Health took years of negotiation, the mayor said, noting pointedly that the effort was necessitated because Lancaster County lacks a health department.
Meanwhile, a federal mandate is obliging Lancaster to inventory its 50,000 water service lines by October to determine which ones are lead. It is trying to minimize the cost by asking customers to self-assess; so far, 7,000 have done so, Sorace said. She noted the city’s water is safe: It is monitored for lead and an anti-leaching additive is used to ensure that the small number of remaining lead lines do not pose a risk.
She acknowledged the rocky rollout of monthly water billing, and promised a better online user interface and an autopay option by spring. She also acknowledged the public outcry over the end of the mounted patrol unit, but said it was unavoidable given the police department’s staffing challenges.
The city and School District of Lancaster just completed a childcare study, she said: It found that local providers have enough room for about 2,800 children, but currently can only accommodate about 1,400 due to staffing shortages.
“That’s a really big gap,” Sorace said, especially given the city’s 8,300 children who are 5th-grade age or younger. The city and school district will be exploring solutions, she said.
Next week, the city will launch a health needs assessment. It’s also looking at transportation and at how to optimize connections between the Red Rose bus system, the Amtrak train system and the city’s bicycle network.
She touted the city’s $12.7 million federal Safer Streets for All grant , the largest grant in city history and part of a record $63 million in grants under management. The city is using the money to redesign intersections and make other modifications to its “high injury network,” with the goal of reducing serious injuries and deaths to zero by 2030.
In the fall, Shentel plans to begin building out the city’s long-stalled community broadband network, starting in the southeast, helping to close Lancaster’s digital divide. As for housing, next month, HDC will break ground for The Apartments at College Avenue, the city’s largest dedicated affordable housing project in decades. In all, the city has 1,347 housing units in the pipeline, including 390 affordable units, the mayor said.
About three-quarters of the way through her presentation, Sorace invited a quartet of young people onto the stage: Three McCaskey High School 11th graders, Sophie Thompson, America Rodriguez de la Cruz, and Adeline Potter Girvin, and 2023 graduate Ian Santos.
The four said they love the city and school district’s diversity. Asked about the problems they see, Thompson said food insecurity, while Rodriguez de la Cruz noted the “disconnect” between those who speak English and those who don’t and the challenges that creates for the latter. Potter Girvin and Thompson discussed the scarcity of minority students in McCaskey’s honors and International Baccalaureate classes.
Santos, who is in the city police cadet program and wants to make law enforcement his career, cited gun violence and young people’s easy access to firearms. Sorace asked him how he feels when someone his age is shot and killed: “It hits me pretty hard,” he said.
Sorace concluded with a discussion of potentially the biggest change for city government in decades: A home rule charter. On Wednesday, the evening before her speech, the city’s Home Rule Study Commission voted 7-1 to proceed with drafting one.
The charter will need to be a “big picture document,” she emphasized, one that sets general guidelines. Governments years down the road need a framework that lets them respond effectively to whatever conditions they face, which no one now can predict.
“The trick to all of this is to write a charter … that will stand the test of time,” she said.